The Occasional Brilliance of Bad Sportsmanship

Sergio Ramos, in white, tackles Liverpool's Mohamed Salah in a match that ended in victory for Real Madrid and a shoulder injury for Mr. Salah.

Sergio Ramos, in white, tackles Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in a match that ended in victory for Real Madrid and a shoulder injury for Mr. Salah.



The subject of this column isn’t talent, vision, grit, emotional intelligence, radical candor or any other leadership skill that people aspire to possess. It’s about the art of behaving badly.

The World Cup, which opens Thursday in Russia, may be the finest laboratory on Earth for studying leadership’s dark side. With a projected audience of 3.2 billion, this tournament will force its 32 team captains to strike a balance between the overwhelming pressure to win and the moral imperative to play fair.

It’s glorious when these goals align, but the heaviest burden of leadership comes when they don’t—when the captain has to choose one or the other.

Last month, while captaining his club team, Real Madrid,

Sergio Ramos

(who will also lead Spain at the World Cup) made just such a decision. With the Champions League final knotted in a scoreless tie, the 32-year-old defender pinned the arm of Liverpool’s top scorer,

Mohamed Salah,

in the crook of his own, then drove his body to the turf. Mr. Salah left the match with a shoulder injury.

Across the globe, people responded to Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory with explosive outrage. They saw Mr. Ramos’s violent tackle as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with sports and accused him of hurting the Egyptian on purpose. His status as captain for both club and country made the optics exponentially worse.

Within days, 500,000 people had signed a petition calling Mr. Ramos “an awful example to future generations” and urging the sport’s governing bodies to punish him retroactively.

There’s no doubt Mr. Ramos will be lustily booed in Russia and that some people will never forgive him. The more provocative question is whether he’d even hesitate to do it again.

When England’s upper classes brought organized sports to prominence, they yoked them to a behavioral code that’s come to be known as “sportsmanship.” To this day, we teach our children that it’s not whether you win or lose—it’s how you play the game.

Violations of this code, which are common at the World Cup, can provoke outsize anger. Many French fans will never forgive their former captain,

Zinedine Zidane,

for head-butting an Italian player in a fit of pique during the final minutes of the 2006 final. His subsequent ejection effectively destroyed his team’s chances of winning.

Leaders in business and other competitive fields are sometimes felled by bad behavior, too. Last year, reports of aggressive tactics and a toxic workplace culture prompted Uber’s board to oust Travis Kalanick, its hard-charging chief executive. A viral video that showed Mr. Kalanick engaged in a heated argument with a driver didn’t help.

The tricky thing about aggressive leadership is that no right-minded person believes it’s 100% negative. We wouldn’t be talking about Uber if Mr. Kalanick hadn’t thrown a few elbows while expanding into hundreds of new markets. The real issue isn’t the leader’s instinct to do aggressive things; it’s our confusion about when it’s appropriate.

Before passing judgment on any example, there are four tests to apply. The first one is identifying the motive.

Starting in the 1960s, researchers began to separate aggression into different flavors. The most common variety is “hostile” aggression, which is driven by a desire to hurt or punish someone. This motive is entirely negative. A second flavor, however, involves an action that may look hostile, but is chiefly done to achieve a worthwhile goal. That’s what researchers call “instrumental” aggression.

Italy's Marco Materazzi falls on the pitch after being head-butted by France's Zinedine Zidane (during the 2006 World Cup final.

Italy’s Marco Materazzi falls on the pitch after being head-butted by France’s Zinedine Zidane (during the 2006 World Cup final.


Peter Schols/GPD/Handout/Reuters

Studies performed on athletes have shown that when they take the field they enter a “game frame” where the rules of sport supersede the everyday rules of society. They might do things in competition they would never do anywhere else. Athletes understand what spectators, who live in the real world, often don’t: The rules of sports aren’t laws per se, but guidelines subject to interpretation by the officials.

That’s also true in the workplace, where behavioral norms will vary and the board or HR department has the final say.

Unlike Mr. Zidane’s impulsive head-butt, there’s no evidence that Mr. Ramos’s tackle was a hostile act. Though Mr. Salah has yet to publicly forgive him, Mr. Ramos hovered over him afterward and says the two men have traded messages. Viewed this way–as strategic rather than malicious–his tackle seems to fit squarely in the “instrumental” category.

The second test is whether an ugly play actually helped the team win—and whether the leader got away with it.

The elite sports captains profiled in my recent book, “The Captain Class,” uniformly described the nasty things they did in competition as coldblooded, calculated acts. Through experience, and by studying the referees, they hoped to commit “intelligent fouls” that fell just inside the line—even if the fans found them excessive.

Mr. Ramos’s tackle met this standard, too. Taking out Liverpool’s best player helped his team and the referees didn’t sanction him for it.

The third test is a matter of timing. Did the potential reward outweigh the risk of failure?

Mr. Ramos surely knew that a rough tackle could lead to his ejection. In this case, however, the consequences of losing paled in comparison to the prize at hand. By winning, Real Madrid edged closer to legend: It’s only the fourth team in history to collect three straight European titles.

The final test is whether a leader’s aggressiveness stays confined to the field—and again, Mr. Ramos sails through. He might want to abandon his dream of becoming a rapper, but he’s no troublemaker.

From the outside looking in, Mr. Ramos’s tackle might seem no more thoughtful than Mr. Zidane’s head-butt. The difference is that the latter was disastrous, pointless, hotblooded and thoroughly hostile. The former was the work of a committed leader.

No matter what business they’re in, exceptional leaders care more about the team’s results than how their individual contributions might be judged. They’re exceptional because they don’t care if you hate them.

What sets Sergio Ramos’s foul apart is that it was purposeful, calculated, intelligent, selfless, well timed and not indicative of how he behaves in the real world. It also worked.

I realize this is confusing. These rules shouldn’t apply to amateur forms of competition where the point is helping kids, or students, develop broadly acceptable teamwork skills. The last message we want to send to young people is that cheaters prosper.

But here’s the inconvenient truth about leaders: Some bad acts come from a fundamentally good place.

—Mr. Walker, a former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams” (Random House).

Write to Sam Walker at